California’s Wild Lilacs

Friday, May 2nd, 2014 by Jenny Watts
    • Bleeding hearts are charming perennials for the shade garden. Look for them now for a special accent.
    • Prepare for planting season! Turn in cover crops and do a soil test if your garden had trouble last year.
    • Plant lawns now from seed. Reseed established lawns to fill in bare patches.
    • Azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias provide lots of beautiful flowers for the shady spring garden. Choose them now.
    • Begin spraying roses now for insect and disease problems. Neem oil is a good product for a less toxic solution.

California’s Wild Lilacs

California Lilacs, or Ceanothus, are some of our most fragrant and colorful native shrubs. Evergreen and very drought tolerant, they provide us with ground covers, shrubs and small trees for various landscape situations. About 40 species are native to California, with many selected varieties also developed.

Many wild lilacs prefer coastal slopes but some are well-adapted to inland conditions. They all like well-drained soil, and prefer light watering and little or no fertilizing. Plants often work best in perimeter areas, on slopes and as background masses.

Ceanothus are fast-growing plants. This makes them useful for quick effects and covering large areas.

They begin blooming at an early age and cover themselves with beautiful, fragrant blossoms in the springtime. Flower colors include white, pale blue, deep blue and purple. Many small flowers are arranged like small lilac blooms at the end of the branches.

Ground cover Ceanothus do best in coastal areas, but some varieties will grow in inland conditions. ‘Yankee Point’ is a wide-spreading, low, dense shrub with shiny, dark green leaves and one-inch clusters of medium blue flowers. It is drought and heat tolerant.

Wild lilac shrubs grow anywhere from 3 feet to 16 feet tall. Most types are wider than they are tall. Many varieties grow well inland including ‘Dark Star’, ‘Julia Phelps’ and ‘Concha’ with deep blue flowers, ‘Frosty Blue’, with light blue blossoms, and ‘Joyce Coulter’, with large clusters of medium blue flowers. ‘Snowball’, with white flowers, also does well here.

‘Ray Hartman’ grows as a large shrub or small tree with large, glossy leaves and profuse displays of medium blue flowers. Sometimes they are grown as patio trees making a very showy display in spring.

Ceanothus grow best with little attention or care. Three things that they dislike are soil amendments, summer water and drip irrigation. Just water occasionally with a hose until the plants are established, then leave them to grow on their own. They will live a long and healthy life this way.

Deer-resistance is often an issue with Ceanothus. Most varieties are eaten by deer since, being natives, they have long been part of their food supply. Some small-leaved or prickly-leaved varieties, like ‘Dark Star’, ‘Julia Phelps’ and ‘Blue Jeans’, are usually more deer-resistant. But given protection when the plants are young, they are vigorous enough that they can withstand some browsing once they get large.

Wild lilacs are a nice addition to the natural landscape and they will delight you each spring with their wonderful, fragrant sprays of flowers.

Ceanothus – A true blue Californian

Friday, September 28th, 2012 by Jenny Watts
    • Cover crops should be planted in the garden as soon as you pull out summer crops. They will feed the soil and prevent erosion over the winter.
    • When blackberry vines are done fruiting, prune back the canes which bore fruit this summer. Twine young canes around the fence or trellis.
    • Pansies, snapdragons, stock, calendulas and primroses can be planted now to replace summer annuals.
    • Fertilize lawns now to build up root systems for a healthy lawn.
    • Fall is for planting! Trees, shrubs and perennials planted now will grow twice as much next year as those planted next spring.

Ceanothus – A true blue Californian

One of the most popular groups of western natives is Ceanothus, or California Wild Lilac. California Lilacs are some of our most fragrant and colorful native shrubs. They are also evergreen and very drought tolerant, and some make excellent hedges! Many wild lilacs prefer coastal slopes and protected locations where they have some relief from the blazing summer heat. So it is important to choose the correct variety for your landscape needs.

In general, Ceanothus prefer coarse, well-draining soil, and most of them do not tolerate summer watering and may succumb to root rot if the soil is too wet. Most are fast-growing, particularly when planted from small container sizes, and develop into good flowering plants quickly. Once established, summer watering should be carefully controlled for best health and long-life. Whenever possible, locate Ceanothus on slopes and banks when clay soil conditions are present.

There are a wide range of choices among the wild lilacs to suit a variety of garden and natural landscaping needs. Flower colors include white, pale blue, deep blue, and purple. Once established they require little care and are relatively pest free. Most species respond well to pruning, not shearing, which should be done after the blooming period. Avoid cutting off branches that are more than an inch in diameter. Their fast growth rate makes them useful for quick effects and coverage.

Not all varieties of Ceanothus are deer-resistant. In fact, many native plants are natural forage for deer, so in unprotected areas it is important to choose varieties that are less appealing to the furry creatures.

Ceanothus ‘Dark Star’ is one of the best in inland areas where deer are present. Growing 6 feet tall and wide, it has small, dark green leaves and electric, cobalt blue flower clusters that cover the shrub in spring. It needs full sun to retain its form and to produce the most flowers. This tough shrub tolerates heavy soil and summer drought. It makes a good informal hedge, screen or windbreak.

Ceanothus ‘Concha’ is a spectacular flowering variety growing 6 feet tall and as wide. It has beautiful deep blue flowers that cover the arching branches from March through May, obscuring the dense, dark green foliage. It is very adaptable to different soil and climate conditions. More tolerant of heavy soils and summer watering than most ceanothus.

Ceanothus ‘Skylark’ is a compact dome-shaped shrub to 5 feet tall and wide. It has abundant blue flower clusters in spring for a longer period and later than most Ceanothus. It takes more shade and water than most Ceanothus, and is also fairly tolerant of heavy soil.

Ceanothus ‘Yankee Point’ is a drought-tolerant shrub that grows 2-3 feet tall by 6-8 feet wide. It has arching branches and large, dark green leaves with large, sky-blue flowers that are very showy. It does best in areas with some coastal influence, but can also do well in hotter climates with some afternoon shade, and it will tolerate some irrigation. Unfortunately, this plant is not deer resistant.

An attractive, mid-sized variety is Ceanothus maritimus. Growing to 3 feet high and 6 feet across, it develops into a dense shrub with small, dark green leaves. In spring it is covered with clusters of light blue flowers. It is best suited to coastal conditions but adapts well to inland areas.

The myth of Ceanothus being short lived is primarily spread by gardeners that insist on drip irrigation, summer water and soil amending. Native plants hate all three. Expect a 20-25 year life in most gardens if you treat Ceanothus as the drought tolerant plants they are.

Ceanothus provide seeds eaten by bushtits, mockingbirds, quail and finches, as well as cover for birds.